When Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney took control of lower league soccer club Wrexham AFC in 2021, it was widely assumed that it was the Hollywood stars who would be bringing the magic.
Two years on, however, this isn’t just a story about the A-listers generously sprinkling stardust – it’s more about the Hollywood duo getting to experience the enchantment of the FA Cup, the world’s oldest soccer competition.
“I think what a lot of people don’t understand about the sport of football is how much anxiety it creates more than any other sport,” McElhenney told CNN’s Don Riddell as he reflected on Wrexham’s remarkable 4-3 victory over Coventry City to reach the fourth round.
“That last 20 minutes was harrowing, it was amongst the greatest and worst 20 minutes of my entire life,” added McElhenney, as he relived how Wrexham nervously held on having led 4-1 at one stage of the match.
The world’s third-oldest football club, Wrexham has never played in the top-flight of English football, but the club has a proud record in the FA Cup, having previously reached the quarterfinals and famously beat Arsenal in the third round in 1992.
Currently playing in the National League – English soccer’s fifth tier – Wrexham was 60 places and three divisions below Coventry when the two teams met in the FA Cup third round.
McElhenney and Reynolds made headlines when they completed their takeover of the club in 2021, with ambitions of taking the Welsh club back to the top of soccer.
Wrexham is one of a number of Welsh teams that play in the English football league system due to the club being founded before the creation of the Welsh football league.
At the time of the takeover by McElhenney and Reynolds, Wrexham had been languishing outside the top four divisions of English soccer, known as the Football League, for over a decade.
McElhenney and Reynolds have already delivered a TV series – “Welcome to Wrexham” – which documents their time at the club as its emerges from obscurity.
Second in the National league – behind leaders Notts County on goal difference, but having played a game less – if Wrexham wins promotion it will play in English football’s League Two next season.
Secure three more promotions and Wrexham will be playing in the Premier League.
And on Sunday, Wrexham hosts Sheffield United in the FA Cup’s fourth round.
United is second in the Championship – and on course to win promotion to the Premier League – and is likely to provide a much stiffer test than Coventry.
“I think, especially for Americans to see a tournament like this, we just don’t have really anything like this. So there’s something really, really special about this one,” McElhenney says.
The owners’ obvious passion for the club has won over the hearts of Wrexham fans and allowed McElhenney, a guy from Philadelphia, to connect with a community from rural Wales.
“I know those people, I grew up with those people, I am one of those people and to be welcomed into their community has been the ride of my life,” added McElhenney.
Messi’s magical influence
McElhenney’s love for soccer, like many in North America, is a new-found love.
The star of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” had been more of a NFL and hockey man, but that changed when he watched a soccer documentary about Diego Maradona.
“I was watching this tiny man who was a magician, I just never seen an athlete do what that man was able to do with the football,” McElhenney recalls of the man widely considered to be one of the world’s greatest ever players.
But it was Maradona’s successor – Lionel Messi – who consummated McElhenney’s love for the beautiful game.
“I had a friend say, ‘You think that guy’s magic? I know of another little man who’s playing right now, who is doing just what Madonna did, except he’s doing it at the highest level for a longer period of time.’
“Of course that was Messi.”
McElhenney began to take more of an interest in soccer, though admits he struggled with the concept of promotion and relegation.
“It’s amazing how many times I’ve had to explain the system over the last year and a half to wide-eyed, slack jawed Americans who had never heard anything like this, and to be fair, I was one of them.”
McElhenney loved the concept that a team could rise from nothing to the top of a sport through the merit of their performances.
“That was really the impetus for this entire thing,” says McElhenney on buying Wrexham.
“It just got my wheels turning insofar as what a great story, what a great opportunity to take a storied club with a rich history, who maybe hasn’t been succeeding at the level that they should be and to invest in them.
“Not only in them, but in the community itself and to see if we could bring them back to their glory in a way that you just could not do in American sports.”
When acting royalty met British royalty
A fourth-round FA Cup tie is not the only unexpected experience for McElhenney – in December, he and Reynolds met King Charles III and Camilla, the queen consort.
The British monarch visited Wrexham to commemorate the granting of “city status” as part of Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations earlier in the year.
As part of the royal visit, Charles and Camilla visited the Racehorse Ground – the world’s oldest stadium according to Guinness World Records and the home of AFC Wrexham – and shared a moment with the two actors on the pitch.
“I didn’t plan to go in December, but when the king calls you come, you hop on a plane and you come,” McElhenney recalls.
“His majesty made a joke that I thought was really funny to me and her majesty, the queen consort, really inquisitive and curious about the ladies’ team, about what we were doing with the stadiums.
“We spoke for over an hour, and I just was not expecting that at all. It was, it was truly an honor and something I’ll cherish forever.”
McElhenney and Reynolds have clearly been on quite the journey. A second series of “Welcome to Wrexham” is due for release later this year and with an ambition to reach the Premier League, there is plenty more in store for the pair.
But first Sunday’s game against Sheffield United.
“I went to visit last summer and it’s a beautiful town full of wonderful people, they could not have been more welcoming,” smiles McElhenney.
“But they of course are now the enemy … I’m sharpening my blade for the Blades,” a reference to United’s nickname, which is a nod to Sheffield – once the steel-making capital of the world.